I usually like to put together lists of my favorite films of the year. This year i liked quite a few but I only loved four films.
Knight Of Cups (Directed by Terrence Malick) - In a year that will ultimately be defined by my personal soul searching and eventual transformation no film resonated more with me than Malick’s Knight of Cups. I started the year in a personal limbo. I no longer felt attached to the politics, personal & professional relationships & cultural artifacts that anchored my life up to that point. Something needed to change and I didn’t know what. The films release in early 2016 was like a siren, a call to action to wake up and go in search of an elusive whole, not with a sense of dread but with a stoic sense of purpose & self-accountability; the virtues I didn’t see society or our contemporary artistic landscape encourage anymore. Whether it was the total political meltdown of the left or popular culture’s descent into moral relativism & ego politics that consumed almost everyone close to me in its wake (including myself), I needed a reminder that art can still be spiritually relevant and reach for something more and can be serious & sublime along the way. In a stormy year Knight Of Cups was a cinematic prayer, the calm island at the centre of the storm. Calm. Reflective. My church.
Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (directed by Zack Snyder): I’m ignoring the franchise set-up and instead focus on what the film is really about - a self contained Greek Tragedy/political allegory. As Armond White put it; "Snyder dares to infuse the comic-book genre with moral & political substance." BvS rises above Nolan's preachy nihilistic Batman & Marvel's infantilization of politics to take genre to unprecedented heights that only Snyder’s previous Man Of Steel (still the best film ever made in the genre) managed to achieve. Snyder knows that imbuing film with a sense of myth explains why superheros even occupy important role in contemporary culture. Superheros are modern parables for our absent spirituality & cultural transformation towards the technological & secular. It's important that Snyder knows this. Social & moral issues of our contemporary political predicament are encapsulated in Superman (Republican) & Batman (Democrat). Read as: Superman the natural unchecked (American military) power with unreconciled destructive consequences (responsible for Metropolis' own 9/11 = America's global politics putting in motion the mechanics of its own future destruction). Batman on the other hand is the resulting nihilist consequence engendered by Superman. Snyder doesn't take sides & allows discourse of ideologies to reveal their own hubris. (Compared to Marvel's aggro liberalism where only one political opinion is correct and propped) A great example of this is in Batman’s questioning of Superman's power - his interests align with corporate villain Lex Luthor (Eisenberg brilliantly cast to recall Zuckerberg meant to suggest that villains exist outside Washington too, particularly in Silicon Valley. With Zuckerberg's recent flirtation with the presidency Snyder is prescient). Here Snyder questions Liberal hypocrisy of stubbornly continuing to neglect corporate violence by siding with it. Snyder understands political discourse is invariably tied up in secularism vs belief and stages the conflict as played out like an amped up ‘myth of Man vs God’. (Batman & Superman fight amongst ruins of Greek columns) Disappearing spirituality & ensuing cultural fragmentation is a subject that encompasses every part of our social texture today but is largely ignored at level of morality & politics in public discourse including popular culture. It takes Snyder’s film to return to this theme. The scene critics scoffed at (Batman & Superman realizing their mothers' names are Martha) is exactly the radical turn that makes the film great. In moral deadlock, it's finding compassion & brotherhood that's the most difficult. They find it here. Nothing silly about it. Unless you're a deep nihilist who'd rather be against everything than believe in something. Snyder doesn’t let media off the hook either with implications of the troubling convergence of journalism & clickbait. Talking heads from real life media figures blend into disjointed noise on politics, morality, spirituality, etc. for the cheekiest critique of #FakeNews of the year. BvS makes best argument that pop can be complex & advance seriousness while Marvel buries it & emphasizes chic ironic distance. BvS engages the topic of our cultural schism with a level of complexity that belies the genre's brief history as mythic allegory and for that there can be no higher praise.
Hell Or High Water (directed by David Mackenzie) - If only someone showed this movie to Hillary Clinton before she decided to neglect a serious ground game in the necessary swing states & generally disregard red state malaise, her legacy may have been saved from total embarrassment. Maybe. Hell Or High Water is a contemporary Western about two brothers suffering from recession era desperation who rob banks in order to pay mortgage on their family home. They’re angry because banks have all but ensured the corrosion of their towns and feel abandoned by Obama era politics that more or less only revitalized coastal cities. These characters just might have voted for Trump in their desperation and yet they are treated with respect & empathy rather than smug condescension that almost all of Hollywood has been shouting at anyone willing to show dissent to establishment politics. It trades contemporary trendy nihilism for a moral seriousness. This social consciousness is reminiscent of the maturity of American cinema in the 70’s in the face of similar themes. Moreover it feels shockingly new & radical today when few others dare to imagine the same stories to build new narratives & myths out of our moral deadlock and post-recession milieu.
Aferim! (Directed by Radu Jude) - The title roughly translating into “Bravo” is as cynical a wink to the audience as Romania’s own aversion in dealing with their history of enslavement of gypsies. In a traditional sense this is a Western; set in 1830’s Wallachia (an innovation in film!) pre-unification largely occupied by Ottomans and Russians about two lawmen tracking down an escaped slave whom they have to return to his master to face punishment. Romania has an ambiguous to immoral legacy in its treatment of the Romani people (gypsies) but has rarely faced up to it in its popular culture. Jude never zooms in or does close ups. He’s more concerned with historicizing the story’s Romanian-ness. Romanians are unique in their torn-ness - not quite Latin, not Slavic, continually disregarded by other countries to the point where they formed a pessimistic shell. The fluctuations in moods we inhabit are extraordinary - in deep joy we are existential and shoot off crude but hilarious aphorisms. In deep sorrow, we play psychoanalysis and reaffirm amateurish notions that the subject is a void. A recipe for self loathing and misanthropy that our history has bequeathed the region today. Rather than celebrating the past & its traditions, Jude not only picks up the history books but does so with a dagger, cutting into it to reveal scars that don’t just raise awareness of Romania’s past but affirm how deeply ingrained into its culture they still continue to be. It’s this misanthropy as a way to rationalize trauma that is truly the film’s great gesture. Above all it’s also hilarious. If you need an insight from where my sense of humor comes from, look no further.